Arts & Culture

Powerful documentary on genocide screened at Kennedy School

5 min read

Those who loudly refused to let the world turn a blind eye or feign helplessness as genocides ravaged millions of lives this century and last are sometimes dubbed “screamers.”

The Harvard community got an earful Monday evening (Feb. 5) from an unlikely quartet of modern screamers – the chart-topping, earsplitting heavy metal band System of a Down – during an advance screening of the new documentary “Screamers” at the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Starr Auditorium.

The band members, like filmmaker Carla Garapedian, are the grandchildren of survivors of the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of more than a million Armenians from 1915 to 1917.

Garapedian’s powerful film weaves together blaring concert footage of System of a Down, screamers in both senses of the word, with horrifying images of bloody or decomposing genocide victims sprawled grotesquely across the ground in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Darfur region of Sudan. The extraordinary juxtaposition of a raucous, sweaty, heavy-metal concert with talking-head segments of activists and scholars, including Samantha Power, Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at the Kennedy School, went over well with the overflow crowd at the screening.

One teenage System of a Down fan said the film helped him grasp the meaning and emotion behind the songs he loves. Meanwhile, a woman who described herself as a senior citizen said during the discussion after the film that she found the dark, angry hard rock a perfect complement to the film’s unflinching examination of genocide.

“It may not be the sort of music you normally hear in the Kennedy School of Government,” Garapedian quipped, adding that the audience’s hearing likely would be restored about a half-hour after the film ended.

The three-year documentary project began in 2004 after Garapedian was asked by the band along with other human rights activists and organizations to set up information booths outside a Los Angeles concert.

“The fans came over and said they knew about the Armenian genocide. These were 16- and 17-year-old kids from every ethnic group and every socioeconomic group you can think of in Los Angeles. They weren’t Armenians,” Garapedian recalled. “They had been politicized by the band, and that impressed me.”

System of a Down’s success in bringing the largely forgotten story of the Armenian slaughter to legions of pierced and black-clad young hard rock fans around the globe came as Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” continued to garner critical acclaim. The two events coupled with Turkey’s ongoing efforts to join the European Union while stridently denying the Armenian genocide convinced an editor at BBC Television to back the film, Garapedian said.

In one scene, Power explains the origin of the term “screamer” as it relates to genocide. “When you actually allow it all in. There’s no other alternative but to go up to people and to scream, and to say, ‘The sky is falling. The sky is falling. People are being systematically butchered, and we can stop it.’ “

System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, a wiry man with a mane of thick black hair and a long chin beard, muses at one point during the film: “It’s so crazy how men could be so cruel to men. It’s hard for the mind to process.”

During the discussion, Garapedian said that genocide continues, despite our frequent pledges of “Never again,” in part because people don’t feel a connection to nameless victims on the other side of the world.

“Somehow our outrage is not there. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but it’s not there. It’s missing,” she said. “But the rage of the music allows us to access it in some way. That was my hope with this film, that people who see it in the movie theaters, especially young people, will feel they can do something.”

The audience erupted in an incredulous chuckle during the movie’s montage of press conference footage in which U.S. government officials and spokespeople sputter and stammer while carefully avoiding saying the word “genocide” while discussing variously ongoing massacres in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. Activist wags have dubbed the verbal gymnastics the “Genocide Jig,” Power said.

Among the members of the audience were Henry Morgenthau III, the grandson of the U.S. Ambassador to Ottoman Turkey who tried unsuccessfully at the time of the genocide to mobilize world opinion against it. The elderly Morgenthau expressed hope after the screening that the film’s focus on a multi-platinum-selling heavy metal band would help raise the profile of the Armenian genocide for a new generation.

“The Armenian genocide has become forgotten as other genocides continue to take place. We have to remember that we haven’t really given any meaning to ‘Never again,’” he said.

Omar Ishmael of the Darfur Peace and Development Organization later echoed that sentiment.

“It’s about Armenia,” Ishmael said, “but it tells the story of what is happening today.”

“Screamers” opens Feb. 9 at the Fresh Pond 10 cinema on Alewife Brook Parkway and at the Showcase Cinema Worcester North 18 on Brooks St.